The Newt electability trap

Is the right starting to deceive itself about the general election prospects of a guy whose baggage has baggage?

Topics: Opening Shot,

The Newt electability trapFILE - In this June 16, 2011 file photo, Republican presidential hopeful, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich speaks at the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans. Gingrich's top two fundraising advisers resigned Tuesday, June 21, 2011, and officials said the Republican candidate's hobbling presidential campaign carried more than $1 million in debt. The departures were the latest blow for the former House speaker who watched 16 top advisers abandon his campaign en masse earlier in June. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File) (Credit: AP)

It seems logical enough to assume that if Republican primary voters are thinking about electability when they go to the polls next year it will be good news for Mitt Romney and bad news for Newt Gingrich.

After all, Romney is supposed to be the safe option — the conventional, generic, vetted and well-rounded candidate who won’t scare off  the pivotal swing voters who are inclined to throw out Barack Obama because of the rotten economy — while Gingrich would bring formidable baggage and no shortage of self-destructive tendencies into a general election campaign. This helps explain why Romney has been running about 4 points better than Gingrich in head-to-head match-ups with Obama, according to the RealClearPolitics average.

Republicans have seemed to understand all of this; a poll last week gave Romney a 15-point edge over Gingrich on the question of electability. But if you think this assessment is set in stone, think again: It’s possible that Gingrich, if he surges into a clear, sustained lead over Romney and continues to erase what were once sky-high negative ratings, will come to be seen by Republicans as their best general election bet — no matter how flawed such a conclusion would be.

The reason has to do with a human tendency to work backward in forming opinions — deciding first what you want the outcome to be, then coming up with a rationale for it. When it comes to politics, this means that the more that voters want to support a certain candidate, the harder they will strain to justify it.

We’ve seen how this can distort perceptions of electability before. In the 2000 GOP primaries, the polling evidence seemed inarguable: John McCain was performing far, far better than George W. Bush against Al Gore. McCain, logically enough, tried to incorporate this into his campaign message, promising Republicans that he’d beat the vice president “like a drum.” But Republican voters wouldn’t hear of it. McCain was their enemy and Bush was their friend; this is what they’d been told by scores of GOP elected officials, activists, interest group leaders and media personalities (Bush had the party establishment wired, don’t forget). The pro-Bush line on electability was almost comically absurd — McCain was only outperforming Bush against Gore because “mischievous” Democrats were trying to trick Republicans into nominating a weak candidate — but that didn’t stop Republican voters from buying into it.



When it comes to Gingrich, we may now be seeing the basis for a similarly flawed-but-potent argument emerge.

It starts with the increasingly popular notion among conservatives that Gingrich, with his dramatic delivery and constant smart-sounding references to history and policy minutiae, is uniquely suited to go toe-to-toe with Obama in debates.  As National Review’s Jonah Goldberg put it a few weeks ago:

Talk to rank-and-file conservatives about such a matchup and they grow giddy, like nerds asked if they’d like to see a battle between Darth Vader and Gandalf the wizard. Ask them if they’d like to see an Obama versus Romney debate (the thrilla with vanilla!) and they shrug. Meanwhile, if you nominate Gingrich, you’ll get a ticket to the fight of the century.

Gingrich has been doing his best to reinforce this, vowing to challenge Obama to a series of three-hour, moderator-less debates (and to chase him around the country if he refuses to accept) and boasting that he’ll even allow the president to use a teleprompter if he wants. These taunts delight conservatives, many of whom are convinced that a skillful debater could easily expose Obama as a mindless dolt whose only talent involves reciting words written by others.

In reality, the idea that Gingrich is Obama’s worst nightmare is ridiculous; for all of the reasons that Joan Walsh wrote about recently (and many, many more), there would be a celebration for the ages inside the White House if he somehow wins the nomination. But on the right, it seems to be gaining resonance.

Now add in a new poll released Wednesday afternoon that showed Gingrich running 2 points ahead of Obama. The result was prominently featured on the Drudge Report and certainly caught the right’s attention. Yes, there’s a catch: The poll is from Rasmussen Reports, which was knocked by Nate Silver after last year’s elections for presenting “biased and inaccurate” data that tended to overstate support for Republican candidates and positions. But this apparent pro-GOP bias has also established Rasmussen as the go-to pollster for many top conservative media outlets and commentators. Thus, to the average Republican, news that a Rasmussen poll suddenly shows Gingrich ahead of Obama probably isn’t cause for skepticism as much as it is confirmation that Gingrich really is a sound November option. (That another recent Rasmussen poll put Romney six points behind Obama probably bolsters this impression.)

Plus, some of the most influential Republican voices in the country are urging their audiences to regard talk of Romney’s electability advantage as a product of the liberal media — “It’s all BS,” Rush Limbaugh told his millions of listeners on Wednesday. “Are you tired of hearing all of this about ‘If the Republicans nominate fill-in-the-blank, then Obama wins?’” he asked. “They’re all electable!” Sean Hannity has been making a similar case on his television and radio shows for months now.

This suggests that electability probably isn’t the primary season weapon that Romney’s camp hopes it is. If Republicans decide that they want to nominate Gingrich, then they’ll convince themselves that he’s as electable — or more electable — than Romney. And if Gingrich, like every other non-Romney candidate who’s surged to the front of the pack this year, ends up shooting himself in the foot and fading, then Republicans will keep saying what they’ve been saying until now — that Romney is the electable guy. The key, though, is that impressions of the candidates will probably drive impressions of electability, not the other way around.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>